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Corruption Challenges Indonesia’s Government

BY Daniel Sagalyn  May 26, 2011 at 10:05 AM EDT

Night in Jakarta. All Photos by Daniel Sagalyn

JAKARTA, Indonesia | “Foreigner ‘attacked’ for not paying bribe.” That was the headline of a story earlier this month in the Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s top English daily newspaper. According to the article, “a Chinese national sustained injuries after being assaulted by immigration officials” at the airport in Jakarta “for allegedly refusing to pay a bribe” to them.

A couple of days later, Indonesia’s leading weekly magazine, Tempo, ran a cover story about how the treasurer of the Democrat Party, who is also a member of parliament, allegedly took a kickback to steer a government contract to a construction company.

These two articles highlight one of Indonesia’s most glaring problems, corruption, which affects high-level American businessmen working in Indonesia and university students in Jakarta alike.

“Corruption in Indonesia is just like Coca-Cola,” said Danang Widoyoko of Indonesia Corruption Watch, a non-governmental organization that works to eradicate the problem. “Everyone, every time, everywhere can become part of the corruption or could be the target of corruption,” he told a group of visiting American journalists.

U.S. government officials, scholars on Indonesia and human rights activists widely praise Indonesia for successfully transitioning to democracy after three decades of strongman rule under President Suharto ended in 1998. But they say corruption has worsened since then, after Indonesia began holding free and fair elections.

“Corruption is pervasive from the soccer league to the supreme court,” said one U.S. government official, speaking on the condition that they not be named. “There is a saying among businessmen that if you have to enter the court system to mediate a dispute, you have already lost.”

One of the major political reforms implemented in 2001 after the fall of President Suharto was the decentralization of political power in Indonesia. Instead of having all major economic, development and political decisions made in the capital, approximately 500 legislatures were created around the county. These district- and municipal-level governing bodies were empowered to make spending decisions on local projects.

Building in JakartaWith 17,000 islands spread across the equator — spanning a distance equivalent to that between Alaska and Florida — decentralization was seen as a way to empower the people and allow for greater autonomy. It also would take the wind out of numerous independence movements, the thinking went.

While most analysts agree decentralization has been successful politically, another effect has been to spread corruption from the capital to the hinterlands.

“Having autonomy in all regions in Indonesia” has meant that “the mayors and regents have their authority to govern [and] to allocate the budget,” and the result has been that “corruption” does occur, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the U.S. journalists during a question-and-answer session.

“So this is a huge challenge, a huge test for me,” he said. Yudhoyono emphasized he was personally committed to tackling this problem.

But the challenge of rooting out corruption is that it is so rampant, according to Haryono Umar, the vice chairman and a commissioner on Indonesia’s Corruption and Eradication Commission, which goes by the acronym KPK.

The commission was created in 2003 to stamp out high-level government and corporate corruption and has successfully investigated and prosecuted 68 members of parliament, more than 10 government ministers, four diplomats and a number of high-ranking chief executive officers and judges. It has received more than 55,000 complaints of corruption.

Haryono Umar added that “in the remote parts of Indonesia, a lot of government employees don’t have any idea how to use government money in an accountable manner, so we need to educate them and let them know that this is against the law.”

The day-to-day impact of corruption on people is real. A number of university students recently described how police were constantly looking for handouts.

Haryno, a 21-year-old student who goes by one name and is studying human resouces management at the Universitas Indonesia, said whenever his friends get stopped for speeding on their motorcycles, the police officer refuses to let them go without a payment, rather than taking their cases to court. Such shakedowns also occur at times when there has been no traffic violation, he said.

Haryno also said he had to pay a government official to expedite getting a residency card to live in Jakarta. The card is supposed to be free, but it would have taken a very long time if he had not paid a bribe, he said.

One businessman, speaking on background, said in order to have ships unloaded at port and the cargo shipped inland, bribes had to be paid to government officials.

The pervasiveness of corruption threatens to taint Indonesia’s transition to democracy, according to Franz Magnis-Suseno, an Indonesian Jesuit scholar of German origin who writes about political philosophy and lives in Jakarta.

“The real challenge for Indonesia does not come from Muslim extremism, but from corruption of the political class,” Magnis-Suseno told the visiting American journalists. “If people get the impression that the political class, for instance, [or] their representatives in parliament are a bunch of opportunists that want to enrich themselves, there will come a moment where they say, what [is] democracy [for]?”

Motorcyclist in IndonesiaAsked if corruption might endanger Indonesia’s transition to democracy, Magnis-Suseno said “it can become a threat to the whole Indonesian democracy…it is really a dangerous development.”

American government officials agree that corruption is a blemish on Indonesia’s transition to democracy. Speaking on background, U.S. government officials say on the one hand, the country now has a vibrant free press and active civil society, with non-governmental organizations focusing on many issues, from the environment, women’s rights, to fighting corruption. And the country has had several presidential and local elections since the fall of Suharto in the late 1990s. But at the same time, one U.S. official said “many here don’t see the Indonesian experience as a big success.”

Another U.S. official said there was strong Indonesian public support for democracy, but like in the United States – where blue-collar workers have suffered as their jobs have migrated overseas to China and elsewhere – in Indonesia, for those who have retained their jobs, pay and benefits have either been cut or not kept up with inflation.

The vast proportion of economic growth has enriched the wealthy, leaving most Indonesians without an economic dividend from democracy, the official said.

American government officials say Washington has a great stake in seeing Indonesia succeed, and has a number of programs in place to help the Indonesian government increase its capacity to govern and enhance the rule of law.

Indonesia’s president said that cleaning up the corruption problem would be a long-term endeavor.

“I believe that someday, maybe 15 years from now, 20 years from now, Indonesia will be better,” Yudhoyono said.